Bridging the disconnect between worlds

Judy McNaughton speaks at the Mann Art Gallery on Friday, June 14, 2019. (Jayda Noyes/Daily Herald)

When Judy McNaughton explores the natural world, she experiences what she calls “moments of clarity.”

The Prince Albert-based artist describes these moments as times where she really feels connected to the place she’s in.

Those connections between the human and the natural world form the basis of the inspiration of her exhibition Being Among, on display in the front gallery at the Mann Art Gallery.

McNaughton’s work is inspired by the natural Saskatchewan landscape. It combines paintings on translucent drafting paper with video and sound to give viewers the sensation of the two worlds — often set apart in western culture — as flowing into one.

McNaughton said she has lived in the area for about 16 years, and in that time, she and her husband have spent a good deal of time living by the riverbank.

“(We feel) quite connected to the place,” she said, adding that the work is also inspired by her feelings about the pace and in her lifetime of experience working and living on the prairies, as well as growing up on a farm in the “lovely prairie landscape.”

“I have sensations — especially at times of life changes, like when I had my child or when family members pass — where I feel much more physically connected to my place,” she said.

At the same time, McNaughton writes in her artist statement, during these moments of clarity, “I notice how I’ve become disconnected from the materiality of my own physical state, and from any connection to the things around me.”

McNaughton used the 2016 oil spill as an example.

“I remember having a very strong sense of my connection to that riverbank … changed in a jarring way,” she said.

“I had quite a strong physical response to that fear — realizing that all of the little creatures we would visit every day had left. All the sounds had changed. The buzzing of the dragonflies and mosquitos; everything was silent. There was that acrid smell by the river, which was completely different than the feel it usually has.”

During those moments, McNaughton said, she becomes more attuned to her physical connection to the environment, and to the natural environment that she depends on for her physical existence.

“This work comes out of those sensations of connection or separation from the natural world that I’m immersed in. The works are a visual expression of those visceral feelings.”

McNaughton said she was playing with the technique of layering transparent surfaces because she was thinking about the sensations of separation and connection.

“Often, in western culture, we separate the human from the natural. The humans are here, the natural world is out there, and it’s for us to consume. We are not of the natural world. There’s that discrete separation,” she said.

“I was playing with the idea of breaking down that discrete separation and being able to see the inside and outside simultaneously.”

The pieces themselves are made up of images McNaughton has encountered in her life, layering landscapes and figures over each other so that where one ends another begins. The viewer sees the interior and the exterior at the same time.

The piece melt, for example, has a video of the river filmed when the ice breaks up. There’s an image of a body on the transparency in front of it.

“You can see the river flowing across the body, you can see the river through the body and you can also see an interior of bones at the same time,” she said.

“There’s not a clear definition of where the body starts and where the background begins. It’s playing with that idea that we’re really not separate from the world. We’re immersed within.  These are visual strategies used to communicate that feeling of being an extension of what’s around us.”

By doing this, McNaughton writes, she reimagines her position in relation to the world around her, “re-invoking a kinship, or at least more attentive encounters with the other denizens of the world.”

Being Among runs until Aug. 24.